The chants of U-S-A grow as the crowd rises and welcomes Christian Cantwell into the ring.
Cantwell briefly acknowledges the cheers, readies himself and, in one fluent motion, releases the 16-pound shot put.
It climbs through the sky until it descends powerfully, landing farther than all previous marks.
Everyone waits in anticipation to hear the measurements announced.
“74 feet, 5 1/2 inches.”
Cantwell, 23, smiles as the crowd and his teammates erupt with congratulations.
This sounds like a scenario that could happen in an Olympic Games setting, but it took place in Columbia on June 27. Cantwell and fellow Tigers Janae Strickland and Conrad Woolsey practiced in front of media members and Missouri track and field campers.
The Athens Olympic Games, Aug. 13-29, might become a reality for Cantwell (6 feet 6, 330 pounds). He competes in the Olympic Trials today in Sacramento, Calif..
“It’s definitely a mind change,” Cantwell said. “Going from hoping to do something to expecting to do something, it’s actually easier because you’re on autopilot.”
Thirty throwers make up the opening field, and that will be narrowed to the three who will make the Olympic team. The qualifying round is today. If Cantwell qualifies for the finals, he will throw again at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. The final three throws of the event will be live on NBC from 7-8 p.m.
Cantwell, a former Missouri track standout, is the No. 1 shot putter in the world. At the Oregon Classic on June 5, he produced the farthest throw, 73-11 1/4, in 2004. He has won 14 consecutive meets but does not expect any of his success to stall.
“My goal is to end the season undefeated, and that includes the meets after the Olympics,’’ Cantwell said. “Once the season is done, start back in October and do it all over again next year.”
Cantwell’s competition for the Trials includes Adam Nelson, the 2000 Sydney Games silver medalist, and bronze medalist John Godina. These men are big names in the shot put world. Cantwell has routinely beat them, but the experience of competing against athletes he has looked up is strange to him.
“Whenever I was a freshman in high school, I remember looking at his picture (Godina) in Track & Field News and thinking ‘That guy is the greatest,’ and now I’m beating the guy and it’s a little surreal,” Cantwell said. “Even after I beat him and if I’m around him, I always feel like I’m the No. 2 guy.”
Going into the competition, Cantwell has no odd premeet rituals. Instead, he has formed a strategy to try to reduce the possibility of being overwhelmed. It can be too much to consider all the competitors he is up against, but he narrows his focus down to one thrower. Beating that one challenger is his goal.
“I focus on the one person instead of everyone, and that makes it easier for me,” Cantwell said.
Cantwell began his track career in junior high in his hometown of Eldon, but his reasons were not all about the sport.
“Umm, the women,” Cantwell said. “No, it was a social thing. In junior high, my coach asked me to do it. I didn’t really want to, but once I realized all my friends were doing it and all the girls I wanted to be my friends were doing it, I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll go out and give it a try.’”
Now, Cantwell is going through the transition of being a little-known, six-time Big 12 Conference champion to the favorite for a gold medal in Athens, Greece.
“Four years ago, I would have said there was no way I could have done it by now,’’ Cantwell said. “It’s not just that I want to be on the Olympic Team, it’s that I expect to be on the Olympic Team.”
Even during all his recent hype, Cantwell knows where his focus must remain. The Olympic Trials is the urgent meet, and if he qualifies, Athens will become his new target.
Maintaining the proper focus despite the media attention is a problem he faces. It is possible for him to do 15-20 interviews per week.
“Personally, I worry about how difficult it is for Christian,’’ said Tom Lewis of MU media relations. “But, he has handled each interview as if he was talking to any one of his family members, letting his true personality come out by just being straightforward and honest, and I think a lot of people appreciate that.”
The attention has trickled down from the media to the community and Cantwell said it is strange to be recognized, but he enjoys it.
“Just last night (June 26), I was at Jimmy John’s on the outside of town,’’ Cantwell said. “Me and a friend were eating, and this guy kept staring at us. He’s like, ‘Are you the shot put guy?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ That happens a lot and it’s great. I appreciate it.”
Cantwell continues to stay grounded by returning to Eldon to visit his parents, Bob and Jackie, whenever he can. The town of about 4,000 is near the Lake of the Ozarks, so Cantwell enjoys fishing there in his spare time.
Cantwell is the youngest of nine children, and his mom knew she had to keep him on the right path to prevent him from becoming spoiled.
“He was a great kid,’’ Jackie Cantwell said. “He wasn’t perfect. We had our moments, but honestly, he was really an easy kid to raise.”
Cantwell’s popularity has not escaped his parents’ lives, either.
“Oh yeah, every time I go to the store I see someone who knew him or knows I’m his mother,’’ Jackie Cantwell said. “So, we talk a lot about Christian, but I like that.”
He does not have much time to enjoy the luxuries of home, including playing with his three dogs, Armstrong, Annie and Ali, because of the extensive amount of travel he endures during the track season.
Cantwell tries not to let all the traveling affect his performance and looks at is as another form of conditioning.
“The more you do it, you just get used to it,’’ he said. “The long lines and everything just become routine, and after awhile it doesn’t bother you hardly at all. It’s just one of those things you become conditioned to.”
The Olympic Trials are Cantwell’s next destination. Two additional elements will help him along the way, Strickland and Woolsey. Strickland will compete in the women’s shot put, and Woolsey will compete in the men’s shot put.
“It is nice to know that I have people going through the same thing I’m going through,’’ Cantwell said. “We can look to each other for support and comfort and that is really nice.”
Few, though, have reached the heights and lengths Cantwell has.
The MU campers got a close look at his performance. Cantwell was sore and tired from his lifting regime, but all that faded within the noise of their cheers. It did not stop him from openly acknowledging and accepting their requests for pictures and hugs.
This picture could be a routine occurrence for Cantwell if he makes the team for Athens. He refuses to look ahead, but recognizes where he expects his future to travel.
“In the past five months, I’ve realized, I think I’ve earned my spot,’’ Cantwell said.